British farming is not such a green idea

British farming
“Cows in Field” by elviskennedy is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I first read in 2016 the arguments of the Brexit economists like Patrick Minford, that Brexit would force British farmers to “become more efficient” or fold, I was patriotically horrified. I wanted to save British farming from such drastic economic arguments. Now I am not so sure.

Beef from Australia

The current argument is about how the Australian trade deal will effect British beef farmers. Some have commented that it does not make sense to transport food halfway round the planet by sea. Unfortunately it does make sense financially as sea transport, even for refrigerated meat, is very cheap in large quantities. But Australia is a large land mass, and some of the cattle are from stations far inland, and can endure up to 2,000 miles of transport to the coast through the hot climate. So advice to their farmers is:

Figure a cow is at LEAST 6 feet long. That allows 6 cattle head to tail down the length of the car. Pack ’em in tight, double up the animals, so you have two lines of cattle side by side. That gets 12 cows into a 36 foot car.

This appears to favour British farming as the more ethical: at least the transport distances are less. However, there is a shortage of abattoir staff in the UK as the Eastern Europeans who used to do such jobs reputedly went home, some for Covid lockdown and some are unlikely to want to face the new post-Brexit immigration conditions and expense.

Meat workers “Team Meating” by Beegee49 licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Greenhouse gases from cattle in British farming

However, there are other green arguments against British beef-farming. It is closely linked to the dairy industry which every year has to kill thousands of male calves to sustain the milk of their mothers. If farmers can’t market these, then the dairy industry becomes less viable. Many vegetarian diets depend on milk, yoghurt and cheese. Vegans eliminate all dairy, partly for health reasons, some also because of increasing awareness that animal farming also heats the planet, irrespective of whether for meat or dairy.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations the methane released from cows, along with the deforestation and fertilisers used for all livestock, creates as much greenhouse gas as the world’s cars, lorries and planes combined.

Outsourcing the carbon footprint

This calculation also applies to sheep, although they emit less greenhouse gas than cattle. The argument from sheep-farmers, especially hill-farmers, is that they are using land that can’t be used for other forms of farming. I

n some parts of the British Isles (eg Cumbria) traditional hill-farming has been carried on for over 1000 years. However, writers such as George Monbiot point out that sheep-farming has ravaged the English countryside and stripped the hillsides of ancient tree-cover.

Removing animal farming and then re-wilding would be a better environmental choice. Some of this appears to be what is intended by the UK Government’s new subsidy system. If re-wilding the UK is the ecological aim, then importing all UK meat needs from a vast country like Australia makes sense. It is essentially out-sourcing the UK carbon footprint, as we do with other types of imports from China.

British farming and poultry pollute rivers

Similar arguments apply to poultry. The most ecologically harmful chicken meat to buy is that which comes from cruel cages where the birds have been fed on soy harvested from the Amazon (ie from Brazil or the US). Some British supermarkets such as Waitrose sell to their ethical shoppers by clearly labelling all free-range poultry products.

The Red tractor label used by other supermarkets is supposed to guarantee similar standards, although the inspecting for Red Tractor standards is severely reduced by covid lockdowns and staff shortages. There is not much sense in claiming the most strict and ethical standards for British farming and shoppers if not enough money or personnel is being devoted to enforcement.

A further environmental concern has emerged with regard to even free-range poultry in recent years: what their slurry is doing to British rivers (links). Counties like Kent may increasingly find that water resilience is threatened by agricultural run-off. So is this an argument for exporting the pollution and importing the chickens ?

Meat eating and the environment

Increasingly people concerned about the environment are cutting down on meat eating or abstaining altogether with a vegan diet. But even then the choices can be looked at with a sceptical eye. Walnuts from California where there is a water shortage, or avocados flown from Israel or Kenya? Even tomatoes trucked up from Spain are grown in vast polytunnels and harvested by cheap North African labour.

Maybe one should stick to ‘buy British’. But even then one notes that the greatest single source of light pollution in Kent is the salad growing enterprise in Thanet.

We need food for a growing UK population, and about half of it is currently imported. Whether we import from the EU or from countries for which new treaties will be signed, the same ethical scrutiny should be applied to each. The EU regulation is not perfect and is widely flouted especially for transport to countries to the east of the EU.

At least the post-Brexit UK government is now legislating against live animal exports from the UK (but is not apparently against live land transport for Australian meat imports).

What is certain is that forthcoming decades are likely to see big changes in the way the British and other countries eat and farm in response to climate change. So perhaps it is a good thing that the majority of British farmers are over 50, and many would be happy to accept retirement if a change in the taxation system allowed them to extricate themselves. A good grant system to enable younger farmers to get started in new projects is a shrewd policy, but this must include strong incentives to engage with radical new ways of producing food in ways that are environmentally and ethically progressive.